I jumped. And I screamed.
It was a completely involuntary scream, caused entirely by something I wasn’t expecting to happen. A bit embarrassing when you realise no one else seems to have screamed at that point. But I’m the type who jumps at mundane stuff like someone bursting through a door when I’m about to open it. For writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (The League of Gentlemen), Ghost Stories is a big exercise in misdirection and springing stuff on you when you’re not ready for it. The “well that made me jump, but I wouldn’t really call it sc- BWAAAAAAAGGHHHH!!” effect.
The back of my programme says: “Ladies and gentlemen. Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories. Thank you and sleep well…” which does rather limit what I can tell you. But I’ll write what I can without giving anything away. In some ways, the show starts the minute you step through the door: sound effects play throughout the foyer bar – not the haunted house cliches of creaky doors or ghosty howls, but unsettling sounds. Scuttling. Rats? Cockroaches? The crackle of static electricity? Dripping. Echoey dripping. And other noises – but you can’t quite pinpoint what they are or why they feel unpleasant.
The show itself is a collection of stories interspersed with mini-lectures on the psychology behind being scared, all engagingly delivered by Paul Kemp as Professor Goodman – he seems to relish the details in his examples, all with a hint of condescension. We dart back and forth between rational explanations for things and the theatricality of fear. With each tale, you relax into the story – there is the determination to “not be scared” because “it’s only a play”. But the irrational side of the brain takes over at little things, like being aware of something moving about in the dark and not wanting it to jump out at you. Sometimes it does – sometimes something else catches you off guard.
Each story seems to toy with the concept of being alone somewhere – usually in the dark. Simon Holmes as The Nightwatchman is suitably gruff and no-nonsense, the sort of man who shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. Chris Levens as Simon Rifkind is simpering and reluctant, a victim of a lie that spiralled out of control. Gary Shelford as the odiously pompous banker with more Mercedes than sense. All 3 stories have an element of the mind playing tricks on you and not wanting to believe you could be so easily frightened, which helps to slowly build up the suspense. Very slowly.
The lighting is used to great effect to both set a scene and to hide things from you until the right moment, or to give you enough of a glimpse of something to heighten your nerves. As a lover of the immersive, I was also glad of the addition of ‘scent effects’. Smell is a very under-used sense in theatre, but in small auditoriums, it works well. It’s amazing how a sudden waft of TCP can really add to a scene. It was interesting to hear the reactions of the other audience around me – different things scare different people. The things I had managed to anticipate had other people reeling in terror and vice versa. But my pre-empting did sometimes take so much of the edge off that I wondered if the timing was out – a split second earlier and they would’ve had me. Again.
I liked it. In a scare-the-crap-out-of myself kind of way. But I get the impression that you have to be in the middle of the scare-ability spectrum to get the best from this show. Too easily scared and you’ll be so traumatised that you won’t sleep for 3 days. Too psychologically distanced and you’ll moan that it wasn’t that scary. If you’re prepared to allow the show to have the desired effect, it’s an absolute scream.
Ghost Stories is playing until Sunday 15th March 2015 at the Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7JB. Not suitable for under 15s. People of a nervous disposition are urged to consider carefully before booking. For tickets and more information go to http://www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk/